They entrusted their elderly mothers, sisters, distant relatives to The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.
That trust, tragically, was misplaced.
On Wednesday, these families learned how their loved ones were left suffering in the smothering and ultimately deadly heat that festered in the wake of air-conditioning outages caused by Hurricane Irma.
Eight of The Rehab Center’s patients are dead and roughly 10 were being treated Wednesday for apparent heat-related illnesses. The tragedy — which again put South Florida in an unflattering national spotlight — was called “unfathomable” by Gov. Rick Scott.
According to the family member of one patient who lived there, the facility had been without air conditioning for three days. The nursing home had generators but was cooling residents with fans. Only some windows were opened, because the facility also was treating some psychiatric patients — and staffers did not want them to escape.
A total of 115 patients were evacuated after the first deaths were discovered.
Three of the victims were identified Wednesday as Estella Hendricks and Gail Nova, both 71; and Carolyn Eatherly, 78, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel reported.
The nursing home stands in the shadow of a mighty health-care facility: Memorial Regional Hospital is within 50 yards. Across the street is world-renown Joe DiMaggio’s Children Hospital.
Yet, the nursing home, which has a history of deficient care in state inspections, apparently never reached out as the patients slowly succumbed to the heat.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” said Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez in announcing a criminal investigation. “We all have elderly people in facilities and we depend on those people in those facilities to care for our most vulnerable elderly population.”
Family members rushed to the facility at 1200 N. 35th Ave. Wednesday morning to find loved ones after the 115 residents of the nursing home and nearby mental-health facility were removed. They spoke in emotional turmoil to reporters.
Gloria Flora Mitchell said her 58-year-old sister “has been in there 10 years. She had a stroke. She can’t talk. She can’t walk. Nothing.”
She said the facility shooed her away when she tried to get answers.
Ellie Pina, whose mother was one of those evacuated, raised alarms almost immediately after Irma knocked out power to the nursing home. She went inside a few days ago and saw the suffering firsthand.
“It felt like 110, 115 degrees,” she said. “The patients were in the halls.”
But Pina didn’t blame the nursing home. She blamed Florida Power & Light for not making the nursing home a priority for restoration of power.
“FPL should be reprimanded for this,” she said. “Residences can wait. Medical facilities should come first.”
FPL officials said the nursing home was not on the list of priority facilities Broward County provided to them in March. After Sanchez’ news conference, an FPL repair truck could be seen working on a line down the street.
Other family members, though, pointed to the facility, which has run afoul of regulators in the past.
Dr. Jack Michel, listed in corporate records as the owner, also is listed as owner of South Florida’s Larkin Community Hospital.
An email to Michel requesting comment was answered by Jorge Carballo, the nursing home administrator. According to Carballo, Hurricane Irma blew out a transformer that powered the air-conditioning system.
“Unfortunately, early this morning, several patients experienced distress and there were three fatalities at the facility and three at the hospital they were transferred to. Facility administration is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome,” Carballo said.
Officials later told The Associated Press five had died after leaving the nursing home, bringing the death toll to eight.
In addition to state and local authorities, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. called for federal intervention.
“This is an inexcusable tragedy that frail patients would die of heat exhaustion,” Nelson said. “I have spoken with the secretary of (Health and Human Services) to get to the bottom of this.”
Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy said a statewide effort was underway to check other nursing homes without power. Hurricane Irma, which made landfall Sunday, knocked out power to 5 million FPL customers statewide.
He urged everyone to be mindful of the continued hot weather that followed Irma and to check on elderly neighbors. “We have temperatures reaching 95 degrees,” he said. “They might need water sooner than a younger person would.”
Fire Rescue workers discovered the lethally hot conditions at 6 a.m. Wednesday when they responded to a report of a heart attack.
“Once we determined that we had multiple deaths at the facilities and the facilities were extremely hot, we made a decision to evacuate all patients,” said Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Lohse-Story.
Patients who died were suffering from dehydration, respiratory distress and other illnesses linked to heat. Sanchez said that heat might not have been the only cause. He told reporters he would not discount carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, for instance.
“We are examining all possibilities,” he said.
Dave Long, an employee of air conditioning service company Airstron, told WPLG-TV that a fuse needed to cool the center’s air conditioning unit was knocked out of place by Irma. He told the news station that he’s been waiting for days for FPL to fix the issue.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Long told WPLG. “We’ve been calling and calling. … It just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and I can’t do anything until we get that fuse popped back in.”
The Rehab Center was reportedly bought by an affiliate of Miami-Dade-based Larkin Community Hospital in 2015. That same year, Michel created the company Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills LLC. Early the next year, an inspection by Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration cited multiple deficiencies.
The facility showed signs of neglect that appeared to predate its sale, such as chipped and peeling paint, cracked tiles, a rusty air-conditioning vent and holes in flooring.
But it had other problems.
One resident had not been bathed for 10 days after being admitted. Flying insects were in the kitchen area. During lunch, inspectors cited “residents were being referred to by staff as ‘feeders’ and identified according to their room number, not their name.”
One patient was found by inspectors in her nightgown, in bed, with the curtains drawn and the lights turned out. She was watching a TV which had not been turned on. She was fed during the day, but in the afternoon, she was still in her nightgown, still staring at a dark TV.
The deficiencies were resolved.
Michel, the listed owner, had his own previous run-in with regulators. In 2006, the doctor was among a group of defendants who settled civil Medicare fraud charges for a combined $14.5 million. The charges stemmed from a kickback scheme involving funneling elderly patients to Larkin.
Staff writers Pat Beall and Holly Baltz and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.